Suen gets tough in textbook dispute
Dennis Chong and Amy Yip
Secretary for Education Michael Suen Ming-yeung yesterday threw down the gauntlet to school textbook publishers, saying the government would take over publishing them unless 'monopolies' get serious about selling the books and teaching materials separately.
Advocacy groups welcomed the idea, saying it would lower prices, but publishers described the one-year ultimatum as 'mission impossible'.
Publishers last year pledged to separately sell textbooks and teaching materials, which can cost twice as much as the textbooks. But they recently said it would take another three years to do so.
Suen yesterday made clear he was dissatisfied with the publishers' pace.
'We are thoroughly disappointed that during that one year they haven't done anything,' he said. 'This is exceptionally unhelpful and we find that we can't tolerate this situation any longer.'
Suen said he had public opinion on his side and that if nothing changes within a year, the authorities will start the tender process to invite parties such as universities and academics to produce their own version of textbooks in order to 'bring competition to the market'. He said it would take about two years to make textbooks available this way.
According to the latest list of textbooks approved by the Education Bureau for the next academic year, only 240 textbooks, or 8 per cent of 2,692 textbooks, are no longer bundled in pricing.
Many of the price cuts were modest. Longman's Chinese language book for the first term of Primary One now costs HK$52, 10.3 per cent less than last year.
Some of the debundled books are priced the same. Other unaffected textbooks are priced 3 to 5 per cent higher than last year despite pledges by publishers to freeze the prices.
Officials believe that bundling textbooks and teaching materials transfers hidden costs to end-users. The phenomenon, officials believe, has made Hong Kong textbooks among the most expensive in the region.
Publishers have cited a surge in paper costs, changes in curriculum and currency factors as reasons for price increases in the past 10 years, which have outstripped inflation.
President of Hong Kong Educational Publishers Association Wong Wai-man said the one-year demand given by Suen was 'mission impossible' because the process involved some 100,000 royalty cases. He also said the government bid to publish textbooks would affect Hong Kong's freedom of publication.
Two concern groups, Education Convergence and Hong Kong Institute of Family Education, welcomed Suen's move, saying it would give parents more choice.
Legislator Cheung Man-kwong said content published by the government should be independently evaluated by a third party.
Meanwhile, Suen said teachers would be allowed to borrow sample copies of books and assessment kits from publishers, a turnaround from an earlier policy.
is the price this year, in HK dollars, for the Form Four history textbook, HKDSE History Inquiry Volume I. It was HK$258 in 2009